Scott and Vonda Dyer were the worship mainstays at Willow Creek, but found new horizons and fulfillment at Bent Tree Bible Fellowship.
By Ronald E. Keener
Scott Dyer was doing well on the worship and music team at Willow Creek Community Church where he had been employed for the past 17 years. It was year 2000 and he and his wife Vonda were happy there: “We were both flourishing in our ministry at Willow and really loved what we were doing.”
“Vonda was leading the vocal team and it was flourishing. I couldn’t imagine doing anything that feels more fulfilling and Vonda felt the same way,” he says.
In fact Scott appeared on the television show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, and in that process they asked him, “If you had a dream job, what would it be if you could have any job?” “I think I’m in it,” he said, “I really felt that way.”
He was doing some work outside the music realm for the Willow Creek Association in helping develop a framework for understanding what a New Testament church is, so that the association could build some measurements on that. It had nothing to do with music, but incorporated worship as one of the purposes of the church.
“I was really loving that, because outside music my larger passion is the church. I was getting to do that,” he says.
Scott and Vonda Dyer were staples on the platform in the services at Willow for 14 years. An attractive couple, they were well known to parishioners week after week in providing leadership to the music and worship of the services on weekends and for mid-week New Community.
Long Methodist background
Scott grew up in the Methodist church where his mother was church pianist and his grandfather was a Methodist pastor and district superintendent in Texas. While a high school senior a friend invited him to go to Willow Creek “to check it out and to play in the band for the high school ministry.” He was playing baritone horn at Willow in the fall of 1983 where he “heard a different understanding of who Jesus was than I ever had heard before.”
He spent three years with Garry Poole in a college ministry at Indiana University and on graduation intended to “go down to Nashville and try to be a Christian rock star and do the whole thing,” as he explains it. Instead he helped Poole start a church in Indianapolis, and then was invited by Willow’s Joe Horness to take the youth programming arts director post, when Joe moved to New Community worship leader.
“I took the job and moved to Willow. I was 23 years old and leading the ministry that I came to Christ in — which was just unbelievable to me,” he says.
Vonda came from a “wonderful Christian home” in the Mennonite Church in Manson, IA, near Fort Dodge, but had concerns about the local church which went through two church splits. At Wheaton College she received her vocal performance degree. During those years she traveled with a group in a youth hostel ministry in the U.S. and Europe and was involved in the “sideline” Billy Graham Crusades. “So ministry was planted in my heart early on,” she says.
While at Wheaton College “kids would pile into cars and drive to ‘this church’ in South Barrington. I had a car so I was a very popular person. Everyone wanted to get in my car and go out to Willow Creek,” Vonda recollects.
A college course in “Worship through the Ages” was influential in sparking “a desire to reach people not only for Christ but to help them understand their expression and their love for Christ through their worship,” Vonda says.
Joined the vocal team
She auditioned for the vocal team at Willow, and on college graduation weekend she learned she had made it on the team, joining the vocal team in the summer of 1989, while teaching music to earn a living. It wasn’t long before Scott saw “this really pretty girl down in the tunnel” — the practice rooms below the stage where Scott had an office. Joe Horness and others eventually brought them together.
After their first introduction, Vonda says she went home and called her Mom and said, “I think I met the man I’m going to marry.” Her mother responded, “Call me when you’re sure.”
Scott eventually ended up in adult ministry and worked with the Willow Creek Association, its fifth employee, he recalls, that today numbers 12,000 congregations that share the “prevailing” approach to ministry.
The years that followed were “a growth curve” for Willow in numbers and in worship as well, involving the leadership of Darlene Zscheck, Joe Horness, and Dieter Zander in “shaping the heart of worship at Willow.” The teaching of Bill Hybels and John Ortberg brought another dimension — “more depth than we ever had before in teaching, a golden era with worship and teaching for the six years when John was there.”
There was a freedom of expression that “was palpable,” says Scott. “Over time the worship at Willow started to evolve and change and you saw people start to stand spontaneously just because they were overcome spiritually by the goodness of God,” Scott recalls. “Those kinds of moments had never happened before and all of a sudden they started happening.”
Scott changed too during the late 1980s: “All of a sudden I had instincts I didn’t have before and I could read a room spiritually in ways I can’t explain that was not an ability that I had before. There was a dynamic that would happen that was unmistakable.”
Time to move
“We had opportunities to leave Willow before, but never felt the freedom to do so,” Scott says. “Then one day when they were starting to prepare the site at Willow for the new staff building, I came to work through the north entrance, that winding entrance by the chapel.
“There was a little berm by the education building entrance with a couple big oak trees, and they were moving those trees so they could build on the berm. They were digging holes around the roots and wrapping the roots in burlap so they could transplant them — and I felt this strong leading, like God was saying, ‘I want you to look at that. That’s you, that’s what I am doing with you. I am preparing you to move.’
“That freaked me out because I didn’t want to move. We had just moved into a house that we’d been praying for for years.”
“Every day that week I drove by there and I felt like the exact same thing and finally I mustered up the courage to tell Vonda. She said, ‘You know what, when we moved in the house I felt God telling me we needed to hold this loosely because this is not your house.’”
But it would be three years before they left Willow Creek, and when they did so they left without jobs, expecting to flourish on consulting and freelance work. Moving away from northern Illinois was an inconceivable thought at the time.
Scott says the Association was flourishing, they were writing resources and teaching them, holding vocal seminars, doing workshops, traveling around the world and “we went to the White House.”
For many congregants the Dyers and Willow were a package deal. When word of their leaving got out, friends and parishioners would say, “How can you leave Willow, you are Willow.” Vonda recalls thinking, “Oh my goodness, you don’t understand Willow if you think we’re Willow. We’re not Willow.”
“It scared us when they said that,” recalls Scott. “Because you really don’t understand the church if that’s what you think.”
“For us, we just felt the sense that we needed to open our hands and keep asking God: Are you moving us and if you’re moving us, we want to be open to that.”
Ministry at Willow was changing too and by July 2003, Scott and Vonda knew they needed to move on. They didn’t feel they wanted to go to another church. Writing, teaching and consulting were in their future, they felt.
Return to church
They were instructing people in leading ministry, sharing what they had learned over the years. Still, says Vonda, “in the quiet reaches of the evening when we were talking, we sensed that God was asking us to return to a church.”
Putting their names in the candidate pool, a call came one day from Pete Briscoe, senior pastor at Bent Tree Bible Fellowship in Carrollton, TX. The Dyers knew his parents, Stuart and Jill Briscoe from Elmbrook Church in Wisconsin, who had spoken at Willow on several occasions.
They knew others from Elmbrook too and were “always struck by the consistency and depth of discipleship in those people.” Scott thought that if Bent Tree is anything like Elmbrook, then it was probably worth checking out.
They found themselves very like-minded with the church and with Driscoll. “The sense we had at Bent Tree was that it was a church that longed to worship, but just didn’t know how, they just needed to be led. It was a church that had tremendous potential but God was just forming it,” Scott says.
The Dyers were urged to teach the congregation the rudimentary things about worship: Why people raise their hands, what to do when you sing a song, what to think about and what to feel. The elders told them, you may think we know what worship is, but we don’t.
“Worship should cost us something,” Scott says. “What it costs is passion — engaging us mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically at some level. That’s a new thought for a lot of people,” he says.
Using one’s gifts
He said the vocal teams were too focused on singing the songs exactly like they had heard them on the worship CDs. “We tried to move our artists to engaging their music, their instruments and their voices in an actual experience where they are allowing the indwelling Christ to be fully present in them and fully engaging their gifts of expression,” he says.
At Bent Tree, Scott is pastor of worship and arts and oversees everything that has to do with Sunday morning that’s not preaching. It includes music, drama, video and the technical arts, with upwards to 200 volunteers in the ministry unit. Vonda is an unpaid staff member and is executive producer of the weekend services.
“My role is to take what happens on the chalkboard of the brainstorming meeting and bring a marriage to what Pete is doing,” she says. “The producer is the one who asks: Are the transitions good, does it translate well for the congregation, is it palatable, and is it distracting?”
Scott’s long-term goal is to “create a culture of songwriting here, where everything we do is original. I’d love to see Bent Tree become a center for the arts where artists who are believers want to come and learn and apply their art to the purposes of the church because art and the church exist to accomplish the purposes of the church. It doesn’t exist for its own benefit, it’s very missional.”
The couple found differences too between worship at Willow and that in Texas. Whereas people in the North often had bad experiences with churches that left negative impressions, “in Texas people have some church experience and they haven’t all been bad — if a church doesn’t feel like a church, people don’t completely trust it.”
They find at Bent Tree they can combine different presentational elements of blended or classic services, like drama, video, solos, and dance, but also a good amount of congregational worship. Blending the two, they feel, works for believers and nonbelievers and seekers.
“That was a real shift for us going from the mentality at Willow and coming here — but pretty quickly we found that it really does work here,” Vonda says.
Scott says they try not to lock into one style of music. “It’s the spirit of the worship experience that’s important, that it be consistent, not necessarily how it sounds or the style of it or even the instrumentation,” One week it may be a choir and horns and lots of singers on stage. Another week it could be just Scott and a piano, a singer and a guitarist. Another week they may do all hymns. “There’s a lot of variety in what we do, but the spirit of it is exactly the same.”
Like evolving church music styles today, Scott and Vonda Dyer have moved along as well in their own lives and careers, contributing much to the maturing of worship and, as they would want it, in helping others experience God and living out one’s faith.
For worship aids from Scott and Vonda Dyer go to worshipvoice.com.